“Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.” —Mother Teresa
Transparency comes by delivering what is real and true whether it’s in the numbers, in the culture, or in relationships. Being transparent can be frightening at times, but it’s less frightening than the unknowns that creep into our minds and cause divisions. As leaders in our companies, we must deliver the truth about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going—even if it’s uncertain and takes some vulnerability to state it.
People like working for employers that state the risk with the business and ask for help to eliminate as many unknowns as possible, give job security, and provide advancements and inclusion. People don’t mind working hard when they’re having fun and winning together as a team. Real fairness is deeply rewarding even if it hurts sometimes. The following true story (names slightly changed) illustrates how transparency in a construction company was transformed from a top-down management style into a transparent and fun place to work.
Toby Connor worked side by side every day with his co-worker Burt Abbott on the construction site. The only difference between Toby and his co-worker Burt was that Burt was the owner of the company.
As Toby and Burt worked together, Burt would agonize and complain about how tough a struggle it was making decisions that were best for the company but not always popular with everyone. Toby frequently told Burt how he didn’t agree with the decisions he made. And often Toby complained about Burt to the other workers.
This struggle created a separation between Burt and his workers that was uncomfortable, and it began to grow as the company added more people. One day Burt had a brilliant idea: if Toby had the same information that Burt had to make his decisions, Toby would make the same decisions Burt did because the information would make the decision obvious.
So, Burt shared the information with Toby—and sure enough, most of the decisions were obvious to Toby also. Burt gradually started allowing Toby to make more of the decisions. As Toby made more decisions, Burt felt so relieved that Toby was seeing the obvious that he would then switch roles and sometimes tell Toby how stupid his decisions were—but Toby didn’t care because he knew his decisions were good ones, and told Burt that he could handle his crew on his own.
Burt moved on to build another crew by hiring Jasper Haymouth and trained Jasper in the trade and taught him how to make decisions with the same information that Toby had. Now something unforeseen began to happen with production information in full view of everyone in the company. Jasper began challenging Toby’s daily production results and calling him a dinosaur. Toby, not about to be outdone by this kid, had to sharpen his game to stay on the top. Toby became more involved in recruiting and training his workers to stay ahead of this friendly competition.
As Burt added more crews that made decisions just like Toby and Jasper, the efficiency of the growing company allowed Burt to land almost any job he wanted to keep his crews busy. He was able to achieve the highest profit margins in the market area because of the decisions like those of Toby and Jasper and how much they affected cost. Burt’s team could train and promote from within the company, and operated with a culture like a happy family that stayed together with him until his retirement. Today, Toby Connor and Jasper Haymouth own and operate the very company that Burt founded on the principles of transparency, honor, and trust.
Many leaders are not transparent because they don’t know how or they’re afraid when they’re less authoritative and so they have a need to protect themselves. My observations of the labor-intensive construction industry are that we lack the desire to measure production results and share with frontline workers, thinking it’s too much effort, can’t be done, or that the measurements we use aren’t the ones that the workers readily understand and relate to. Most of the resistance I hear is, “We can’t trust our workers with that much information.” But the lack of trust in sharing daily production goals and results with front line workers requires extra management to manage a workforce that’s less engaged, making costs higher than they need to be.
As observed in the story of Burt making production results accessible to all, top performance is extremely powerful in encouraging positive performance throughout the company. Focus, engagement, and growing talent become the norm. Problems and challenges can be solved with passionate, intelligent conversations when information is accurate and transparent.
You can try to motivate with fear or incentives, but nothing is as powerful a motivator as satisfying the intrinsic need in every human heart: to know the value of the contribution that is made. Everyone wants to know, “How’d I do today, Boss?”
There are many examples in the construction industry of how to grow a labor-intensive construction company, but the method illustrated by Burt’s company will be the most fun to work with, the easiest to retain help in this tough labor market, and eventually have the easiest transfer of ownership with the highest valuations.